Being in high school during the Prequel Trilogy didn’t remedy my absent appreciation for Star Wars. Nor did it improve my chances of playing that Epic Duels game the other nerds set up in the journalism room. Don’t get me wrong, the problem wasn’t the game. It was my total lack of interest in seeing who would win between Hayden Christensen and that jetpack-wearing space praetorian who defeated himself by flying into a pit. So hip. I can totally see it. No, please don’t explain it to me.
The motto for Restoration Games is “Every Game Deserves Another Turn.” A lovely sentiment! Especially in an age where far too many releases are forgotten within a month. But what I appreciate most about their work is how they’ve given me a first turn at a handful of games I otherwise missed. Unmatched: Battle of Legends is their latest. And although I never got around to playing Epic Duels, it’s already obvious that this is the superior version. No space wizards, for one.
In place of space wizards, this initial set for Unmatched happens to contain an actual land wizard. That’s why the unifying motif is “legends,” accounting for the presence of Medusa, King Arthur, Sinbad the Sailor, and… Alice. From Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. Which is a very recent choice of legend, appearing in print in 1865 rather than, say, prior to the invention of moveable type. Whatever. Anyone who can swing a buster sword is sufficiently legendary in my book, even if this rendering is more American McGee than Lewis Carroll.
Spilling the beans right now, this cast of characters is absolutely the best thing about Unmatched. It was always essential to get that right, since Restoration Games clearly hopes to make a series out of this system, but each character is a careful blend of familiar and rules-bendy, both introducing concepts and twisting your expectations until the characters break out of their archetypes. Yeah, there’s a brawler and a mover and a ranged fighter, but they’re not merely those things. We’ll return to this in a moment, but be aware that all the basic stuff I’m about to outline is seriously elevated by the game’s roster.
Okay, the basics. Like so many games these days, Unmatched knows how to pitch itself as simple yet deep. At this point, such a description borders on cliché. And while we’re at it, “deep” might be a stretch, although the aforementioned flexibility goes a long way toward permitting surprising maneuvers. Although once again, I’m getting ahead of myself.
The gist is that you’re allowed to do two things on your turn. There are only three options to choose from, and they’re heavily informed by what you’re holding in your hand. When you’re holding a whole lot of nothing, you’ll want to maneuver. This lets you draw a card and potentially move all of your fighters — usually two, your main character and their sidekick, although it’s possible you’ll have more. If you happen to be holding an instant power, you can play it. Easy.
The third and most involved option is an attack. Melee fighters need to be standing next to their target, while ranged combatants shoot at enemies occupying the same colored zone. This leads to a few interesting tactical possibilities, like taking the long way around the purple zone so Medusa or Merlin can’t target you, or finding opportune spots that occupy multiple zones. Attacks themselves are a mix of brute force and some light bluffing. The attacker plays a card, followed by the defender if they so desire. Attack minus defense is the damage incurred. Again, this is pretty simple stuff. The intelligent part comes from deciding when to invest and when to hold. Did your opponent play a high attack, maybe even something that will do bonus damage if undefended? Or are they delivering a scratch to tease out and waste your best cards? On the other foot, many attacks are also valuable defenses, prompting you to weigh each assault to decide whether you’re leaving yourself open come your rival’s turn.
None of this is new, which shouldn’t come as a surprise from a company named Restoration Games. Instead of focusing on originality, it’s tuned to perfection. Specifically, the sort of perfection that feels blatantly imbalanced when the tides are turned against you, only to swing back into your favor with a bit of cleverness. At least when playing with two people. At four it tends to bog down, with all those fighters muddying into and around each other. For best results, approach this as a duel rather than a team match.
On their own, the rules don’t sound like much. Or rather, they sound like the foundations of countless games of manifold quality. It’s the characters who elevate them.
Consider Arthur. That’s King Arthur to you. At first glance, he’s a brawler. At second glance, too. Okay, at all glances. His default power is that he can boost any attack by discarding another card, which for everybody else is an occasional thing. When paired with one of his better attacks, like Excalibur or Noble Sacrifice (which lets you play a second boost), he can deal crippling damage.
But on his own, Arthur is a bit of a chump. Sure, he’ll land a punch, but he isn’t very fast, his ability can be negated by any character’s Feint card, and any opposing defense card that results in an opponent running away means you’ve got to slowly trundle after them rather than swinging again.
Enter Merlin. Unlike his pupil, the land-wizard is a bit squishy — he can’t weather many blows — but he brings some utility to the pair. Drawing extra cards, unblockable direct damage, using a storm to move every figure on the board; he’s perfect at lining up Arthur’s swings or darting out of danger. On his own, Arthur is a thug. With Merlin at his side, he’s not only King of the Britons, but King of Whoop-ass. The problem? He’s also required to play nanny, constantly shepherding Merlin out of harm’s way.
Then there’s Medusa. She’s a ranged fighter, leading you to expect lots of long shots and scampering away. And yes, that’s her modus operandi, positioning her three Harpies to block avenues of approach while she takes potshots from a safe distance. But when surrounded or backed up against the edge of the board, she becomes something else entirely — a cornered viper. Her defense cards are not only potent, but also rip cards straight out of her attacker’s hands. Her innate ability deals damage to anyone in her zone, discouraging rivals from getting too close. And her last-ditch attack, Gaze of Stone, deals a pile of extra damage if the original attack goes unblocked. Spend your last card against Medusa at your own peril.
The same goes for the other characters. Alice swaps rapidly between two forms depending on which bottle she’s ingested, either transforming into a bruiser or a defensive fighter. Then she sics the Jabberwock on her enemies for unexpected damage. Sinbad grows stronger with every Voyage in his discard pile, but first he needs to get them there, which usually involves taking risks by making attacks that are likely to fail. In other words, Sinbad grows stronger through experience and failure. How appropriate is that?
The point is, the characters are a delight, and pull double duty as teaching aids and competent warriors. Arthur teaches you about boosts, Sinbad about movement and card draws — yet they’re far more than a single gimmick. Every time I begin to suspect one is unbeatable, we play a match where the tables are turned in the roughest possible manner. Some of that has to do with things like the luck of the draw, but that’s part of the thrill of such a game. Here are your tools, randomly assembled: now what can you do with them?
And I want more.
Some of that is pure childlike greed, but the rest is that I’d love to see all that Unmatched can offer. There are few fighting systems as simple as this one. It takes fewer than five minutes to teach, and Rob Daviau, J.R. Honeycutt, and Justin Jacobson plainly understand how to design interesting characters. Yet as elaborate as the base set’s four fighters are, they still hew just close enough to archetype that it would have been nice to see something a little crazier. Word is, the best is yet to come. That’s conventional wisdom, after all: build a firm foundation for your system before you let it run wild.
But conventional wisdom can go awry, especially in a saturated market where systems often shrivel on the vine before they get a chance to shine. Unmatched: Battle of Legends is good enough, and boasts sufficient pedigree, that such a fate isn’t likely. Hopefully not. As an opening swing, Umatched lands one hell of a haymaker. Now let’s see the knockout.
A complimentary copy was provided.